Concert reviews were always something I wanted to write for this site, but I never drummed up the gumption to jot down my thoughts about shows after I attend them. In reality, I didn’t want shows to become means to an end, in the same way album purchases had become source for reviews.
Still, I go to a lot of concerts, and it feels awkward not mentioning them at least once.
So I’m going to do a year-end overview of all the shows I’ve attended in the past year.
No sooner did I bemoan the lack of November releases that I found myself adding a whole bunch of November releases to my wish list.
Enya, Dark Sky Island, Nov. 20
Enya usually takes about 3 to 5 years to turn around new albums, so the 7-year gap between 2008’s And Winter Came and Dark Sky Island is her longest stretch. The announcement was pretty sudden, and I certainly wouldn’t have learned about it had I not visited her official site on a total whim.
Björk, Vulnicura Strings, Nov. 27
Vulnicura has a pretty secure spot on the year-end Favorite Edition list, but it’ll be interesting to see whether Vulnicura Strings dislodges its predecessor from that spot.
Inventions, Blanket Waves, Nov. 13
Inventions is certainly turning out to be a prolific project for Matthew Cooper and Mark Smith. This 10-inch vinyl EP is the second release from the pair this year.
Nirvana, Nirvana, Nov. 13
The 2002 self-titled compilation gets reissued on Blu-Ray audio and vinyl.
Dolly Parton / Linda Ronstadt / Emmylou Harris, Complete Trio Collection
Early reports indicated this compilation would be released on Oct. 16, but then it fell off the release schedule with no indication of a new date.
Frank Ocean, Boys Don’t Cry
Frank Ocean hinted at a July release for his second album, and then, he fell off the face of the planet. He canceled some scheduled appearances, and July has long passed.
No one has really asked me this question, and from what I gather, I’m supposed to turn this question around and ask the (presumably heterosexual) asker, “How did you know you were straight?”
But my answer to the question would be pretty easy to track through the music I was listening to at the cusp of adolescence. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the I gravitated toward bands with handsome singers — your Simon Le Bons, your Huey Lewises, your Stings, your Bruce Springsteens.
I didn’t connect the growing fascination I had for these pop idols with the orientation my sexuality would eventually align because the curriculum of my Catholic education was clear — I was fated to develop an attraction to women because any alternative would be unacceptable.
So I used music as a cover. Yes, I dug the songs, but they weren’t the only draw.
Exhibit A: Sting, “Love is the Seventh Wave”
The back cover of this single had Sting posing without a shirt, and I couldn’t tear my eyes away. My household toed the homophobic line because my parents were devoutly Catholic and my brother and sisters weren’t old enough to come to their conclusions. So I would sneak peeks at this image surreptitiously, not exploring why I was so powerfully drawn to it.
Technically, my brother owned that 7-inch single, and he called dibs on Sting in our Sibling Rivalry Collection Race. My hormones would not be denied, and I wrestled Sting from his monopoly. I dubbed his Sting albums to cassette without his permission, and I played “Russians” at my first piano recital.
The Dream of the Blue Turtles and … Nothing Like the Sun are awesome albums in their own right, but I could count on the music press to include a few pictures of Sting stripped to the waist.
Exhibit B: Midnight Oil, Blue Sky Mining
I didn’t actually like Midnight Oil when a pair of friends subjected me to Diesel and Dust in the car as we drove around town. But I eventually adjusted to Peter Garrett’s warble, and the songcraft of the album won me over.
One of the friends who introduced me to Midnight Oil would be the first person with whom I’d fall in love. I remember one night dropping him off at his house after a night out and driving back, mumbling to myself that I loved him. I can’t remember another time when I felt both solace and burden in a single thought.
Blue Sky Mining followed Diesel and Dust two years later, by which time my feelings for my friend made senior year in high school a slog. I listened to the album day in and day out because I had to escape into something that linked me to him. And I could use my growing interest in college rock as another cover.
Exhibit C: R.E.M., “Country Feedback”
My friend went to the Mainland for college, and I stayed in Honolulu. During my first semester, I would play Out of Time by R.E.M. every morning, and the track that summed up my depression was “Country Feedback”. The track is slow and quiet, but Michael Stipe tosses out the phrase “fuck off” at the midpoint of the song with conviction. I was pissed off at having a broken heart but also sad by the implications of who broke it.
Exhibit D: Haruki Murakami, Hear the Wind Sing
No, Hear the Wind Sing is not an album. It’s a novel. A Haruki Murakami novel, to be exact.
But it was a novel that served as the basis for an electronic song I wrote hoping to convince a guy I had a crush on to sing it. He couldn’t find the time to do it.
It had been a year since I returned from New York City, and I still wasn’t ready to accept the obvious direction of my sexual orientation. So something like writing a song hoping to get a guy I liked to sing it was just a totally rational thing for someone in my state of mind to do.
It took another 13 years before I transposed it to my own range, recorded it and sang it myself with much assistance by pitch-correction software.
Exhibit E: Emmylou Harris, Wrecking Ball
Emmylou Harris’ label directed its press efforts for her 1995 album Wrecking Ball to colleges and independent music outlets instead of country radio because it was her “weird album”. I snagged a promo of the album and fell in love with it.
The arrival of Wrecking Ball happened at the same time I wrote articles about National Coming Out Day, which resulted in my own. The two events are indelibly entwined. But I can’t think of a better album to serve as a soundtrack for that change.
It’s a dark, brooding album but also beautiful. I was still intimidated by the process of coming out, so I can’t say I look back on it as bright and joyous. I had a lot of work to do introspectively, and Wrecking Ball reflected that.
The album pretty much transformed Harris’ career, reaching a new audience as the old one moved on. It was certainly my pivot point as well.
The fall release schedule probably means a lot more to listeners far younger than myself, but I don’t really see much beyond these albums — and ones previously reported — about which to get excited.
Rufus Wainwright, Prima Donna, Oct. 2
The bar for rock stars composing classical music is set low enough that exercises for first-year composition students in a conservatory become amazing acts of achievement. See Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, Billy Joel. Wainwright, however, really loves opera, and his songwriting already shows a strong predilection for storytelling.
Glenn Gould, Remastered: The Complete Album Collection, Oct. 9
Back in May 2015, I picked up the soundtrack to Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, a movie I hadn’t seen since college. Listening to the soundtrack made me crave to watch it again, and after getting the DVD, I’ve picked up a few Gould recordings from the used vinyl bins. I don’t think I’m enough of a fan to drop $200+ on this set, but it would be tempting.
XTC, Oranges and Lemons (Deluxe Edition), Oct. 23
Oranges and Lemons was the first XTC album I owned, although I like Skylarking and the Dukes of the Stratosphear’s Psonic Psunspot more.
Igor Stravinsky, The Complete Album Collection, Oct. 30
On the same day Duran Duran dropped that stinker of an album known as Red Carpet Massacre, I bought a 42-disc budget boxed set of Igor Stravisnky conducting his own works. This remastered collection promises another 15 discs of material. That budget set was $40 and had the barest minimum packaging it could muster. Don’t know if I can justify spending 5 times as much if I’m pretty much going to rip them anyway. But yeah … tempting …
Dolly Parton / Linda Ronstadt / Emmylou Harris, Complete Trio Collection, TBD
Linda Ronstadt pretty much ruled out another Trio album when she revealed she had Parkinson’s disease. So this collection remasters the two Trio albums and adds a third disc of outtakes and rarities. Oct. 16 had originally been reported as the release date, but now no date has been set.
Henryk Górecki, Symphony No. 4, Jan. 22, 2016
Originally scheduled for Sept. 25 and then Oct. 16, Nonesuch’s recording of Górecki’s posthumous symphony has now been pushed back to January 2016.
2015 is turning out to be one of those years where the really good albums suck so much oxygen out of the rest of the release schedule that it’s tough to put together even a speculative list.
That’s a long-winded way to say Sleater-Kinney’s return has pretty much overshadowed everyone else.
Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love: Sleater-Kinney left at the height of their career, and a 10-year hiatus did nothing to dim that achievement.
Björk, Vulnicura: I like Björk best when she’s more beat-oriented because her more introspective work tends to meander. This album is too wrenching to mess around.
Madonna, Rebel Heart: I would agree this album is Madge’s best since Ray of Light mostly because it’s head and shoulders above the last few meandering discs she put out, Confessions on the Dancefloor not withstanding.
Steve Grand, All American Boy: The rockist in me should rally against everything about this album, but I can’t bring myself to do it.
Takaakira “Taka” Goto, Classical Punk and Echoes Under the Beauty: The decidedly non-orchestral direction of MONO’s Rays of Darkness was a welcome direction that I feared this album would be a relapse. It’s not.
Kronos Quartet, Tundra Songs: I was bracing myself for more international crossover, but this album is some pretty adventurous and spellbinding music.
Torche, Restarter: I liked Harmonicraft, but Gaytheist’s Stealth Beats was more my speed. Then Torche recorded this album.
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, The Traveling Kind: I hate to say this, but this album is what you would expect from artists with the calibers of Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell. Old Yellow Moon, though, kind of exceeded that.
I wouldn’t have started listening to country music if it weren’t for Emmylou Harris. Wrecking Ball was my gateway drug, and I wanted more.
But I knew it was the anomaly. Harris said as much, calling it her “weird album.”
Even though I loved Harris, I was wary about how to approach this newfound appreciation for a genre that speaks nothing at all to my experience. You can’t get any whiter than country music.
Luckily, Harris’ former label Warner Bros. made that exploration easier by releasing a three-CD, career-spanning boxed set titled Portraits. I determined Pieces of the Sky would be my next purchase, followed by Bluebird.
The boxed set left out Cowgirl’s Prayer, the first album Harris recorded for her then-new label Asylum before following up with Wrecking Ball. With so many great albums under her belt, surely Cowgirl’s Prayer would be a safe investment.
So I bought it, and while I could recognize it wasn’t bad, I wasn’t swayed enough to call it good. At the same time, I knew I didn’t have enough context. Harris had released a dozen and a half albums by the time I encountered her, and I had only five points of data up till then.
Cowgirl’s Prayer, unfortunately, did not survive the next crush for cash, and I sold it. But not without backing it up on a CD-R of MP3s.
Since falling down the black hole of vinyl collecting in 2013, I’ve made sure my analog acquisitions have digital counterparts, which meant my Emmylou Harris collection expanded greatly over the last two years.
I revisited Cowgirl’s Prayer for the first time in 14 years, and my more mature ears — educated extensively in Harris’ oeuvre — finally understood that context.
As stated by other writers many times over, Harris doesn’t really record bad albums. Cowgirl’s Prayer isn’t Pieces of the Sky, Trio, or Luxury Liner, but it’s not Ballad of Sally Rose, or Hard Bargain either. If Harris’ albums were ranked, Cowgirl’s Prayer would inhabit the upper half of that list.
She sounds reinvigorated after a lackluster turn on Brand New Dance. The eclectic song choice and pristine production could have been a product of her early days with producer Brian Ahern, while the sparser arrangements hinted at the introspective direction her music would go.
What I didn’t understand about Cowgirl’s Prayer was the fact it was a pivot. It was the last album Harris would record aimed at a mainstream country audience, but it set the template for Wrecking Ball and everything that came after.
An unlikely comparison would be Sade’s Love Deluxe. I thought the album was a dud because I wanted more of Stronger Than Pride. I didn’t realize Love Deluxe was the starting point for Lovers Rock and Soldier of Love. Of course, it took Sade eight years to clarify that point.
Wrecking Ball is definitely the album on which Harris transformed her career, but before it could happen, Cowgirl’s Prayer needed to set up the shift.
Part of me still misses ICE Magazine, the publication dedicated to reporting on new releases and reissues. Super Deluxe Edition has done a good job recapturing the kind of reporting that went into ICE. I’ve adjusted to using Pause and Play for tracking new releases, but sometimes, I get more relevant information from the personalization features on Discogs.
ICE launched in the early ’90s to track compact disc releases. It ended publication just as the download market ate into CD sales. If a similar publication were to launch today, it would probably report on which artists have made their content exclusive on which streaming service. And vinyl. Talk about turnabout being fair play.
10,000 Maniacs, Twice Told Tales, April 28
This latest incarnation of 10,000 Maniacs brings Mary Ramsey back into the fold and welcomes a guitarist who also doubles on vocals. For this album, the Maniacs reach for the roots, covering the traditional music that has informed their sound.
Roomful of Teeth, Render, April 28
Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I had the temerity to stick with my composition studies in college. It might have sounded like the stuff happening in Brooklyn with the likes of Roomful of Teeth, So Percussion and Alarm Will Sound.
Takaakira Goto, Classical Punk and Echoes Under Beauty, May 5
Taka wrote this album around the time MONO started getting orchestral. I’ve enjoyed the rougher sound of Rays of Darkness too much to want to go back in time.
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell, The Traveling Kind, May 12
Brian Ahrens didn’t produce this second duet album, but Harris and Crowell wanted The Traveling Kind to reflect where they are as artists now. It’s hard not to have high expectations.
Deebs/Jarrell Perry, Shift, May 19
A lot of attention will focus on the second album by Frank Ocean, but for my money, Jarrell Perry does a far more adventurous job pushing the edges of R&B.
Faith No More, Sol Invictus, May 19
Yeah, yeah, insert grumbling about Jim Martin’s lack of involvement here. I’m still curious.
NOW Ensemble, Dreamfall, May 26
See above about labelmates Roomful of Teeth.
Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free, July 17
Damn, Jason Isbell is looking mighty fine on that cover photo. I couldn’t get enough of Southeastern, so I’ve spent the last few months devouring his 2011 album Here We Rest. Now a new set is just going to keep this jones going.
Frank Ocean, Boys Don’t Cry, July 2015
Hey, Frank, could you convince Universal Music to put out a decent vinyl issue of channel ORANGE as well? Thanks.
Duran Duran, TBD, September 2015
Not since Colin Thurston has Duran Duran worked with the same producer twice. Mark Ronson brought out not just the vintage sound of Duran Duran but also the unmistakable essence of a Duran Duran song. Here’s hoping the latter gets retained if the former evolves.